By BEVERLY STODDART, A NH Life
On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, two bills dealing with the state’s cannabis laws will be a focus of the Senate. On April 20, HB1598 goes before the Ways and Means Committee to talk about the legalization and possession of cannabis sold through a state liquor store model. On April 21, the Senate is scheduled to vote on HB629, “relative to the home cultivation of cannabis plants and the possession of certain cannabis-infused products.”
Matt Simon has been active on the cannabis front in New Hampshire for fifteen years. He currently is the Director of Public and Government Relations for Prime Alternative Treatment Centers. He started as an English teacher in West Virginia and Kentucky before moving to New Hampshire. He had a front-row seat to the issues of opioid addiction when students were passing out in class.
While cannabis is considered a gateway drug, Matt says no. He learned the students opted to go straight to oxycontin and hillbilly heroin, eschewing cannabis. He is a battle-hardened advocate for the use of cannabis regulated correctly, with the individual foremost the priority. We met on Monday to talk about the two bills and how HB1598 could affect the alternative treatment centers.
Let’s start with HB629.
“When we talk about cannabis legalization, we’re usually talking about many different issues lumped into one topic. There are two separate aspects in my mind. One is how the government responds to the fact that adults have cannabis. What is the criminal justice response if there is one. Should people be punished is the fundamental question. Should adults be punished if they choose to use cannabis? People who advocate for the legalization say no. It’s easy to stop punishing adults for using cannabis. Just take those penalties off the books for whatever amount is deemed appropriate. HB629 takes the existing criminal amount of .75 ounces and says anything under that amount is no longer fined. So, we’re no longer going to fine adults when they buy cannabis in the store in Massachusetts and bring it back and legalize possession of up to six plants, three of which may be mature. That mirrors the one in Massachusetts and Maine for adults. HB629 is a very simple bill. It’s just aimed at putting New Hampshire’s cannabis penalties in line with neighboring states. Which is to say, eliminating penalties for limited personal possession and home cultivation.”
We have only a fine now if you bought cannabis in Massachusetts or Maine and cross the state line.
“It’s a one hundred dollar fine and a civil violation since 2017 when the decriminalization law took effect.”
Did you work on that law?
“I did. That was a huge step forward for cannabis policy in New Hampshire. They were arresting thousands of people each year for possession before that. After that, we’re still arresting quite a significant number of people, according to the ACLU numbers they got from the FBI. It was 1500 arrests for possession in the most recent year. It would have been for amounts over .75, but if you buy an ounce in Massachusetts and bring it back and not realize you’re over that limit, we have no way of knowing how much the amounts are.”
Why are the police against legalization?
“I think most police officers favor legalization if we’re talking about rank-and-file police officers. There’s a tremendous disconnect between some police chiefs who advocate at the statehouse and the interests of the average law enforcement officer. There’s a silent majority of good police officers who want to catch criminals and make our communities safer. They realize the cannabis prohibition does not help them do that and undermines their ability for relationships they need to form with the communities they are policing.”
Have we solved that part of the puzzle?
“Not at all. That’s why HB629 is so important. It would eliminate those penalties and put cannabis on par with alcohol as far as adult possession is concerned. However, it would leave the other set of questions of how you would regulate a cannabis market. Those questions are far more complicated. Compared to the other issues, much more difficult and complicated to get right.”
“It passed the senate judiciary committee last week in a three to two vote. It was the first time any senate committee in New Hampshire approved an adult-use legalization bill. It is scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate this Thursday.”
So please speak about HB1598.
“HB1598 is a unique bill. I’ve never seen anything like it until it was introduced, and it is an attempt to put the NH Liquor Commission in charge of the state monopoly for adult-use cannabis sales. Every other state that has legalized cannabis has opted to go with a private retail market regulated by the state. But the actual cultivation and sales of cannabis are all taking place in the private sector. No state has ever tried to do anything like this for a number of reasons. They’ve all not gone down that road. The main reason is that cannabis is still illegal under federal law. It’s one thing to have states issue licenses to private businesses that violate federal law. But to have state employees in the position of selling cannabis to adults, I’m not an attorney, but there are a lot of smart attorneys out there who have written articles about this. Many say this will be preempted under federal law, and if it were challenged in court, it would likely be overturned or thrown out. No one has any real idea how that might play out if it was challenged.”
“The attorneys I’ve spoken to expect there to be legal action if this were to pass. It would likely wind up in court. That’s the threshold risk before we even get into how it works and will even be implemented. The main thing it would do would make a first-in-the-nation state monopoly for adult-use cannabis sales.”
How does this bill differ from the bill Renny Cushing sponsored in 2019?
“That bill (HB481) was a relatively free-market system. The study commission’s recommendation was to have an independent cannabis commission that dealt with cannabis regulation exclusively and have an independent oversight board representing various stakeholders. There were many additional recommendations, but the overall structure was to have an independent cannabis commission with a transparent oversight process that would regulate cannabis. That bill passed in 2019, and then with the 2020 election, Republicans got control of the house, and we had a new chair of that committee, Daryl Abbas, who sponsored HB1598.”
Tell me, why would you be against the state liquor store model?
“I’m waiting for somebody to convince me that this is the right path. I’ve been working on this issue for fifteen years. I’ve talked to thousands of people about this. Some of them think this would be a good idea. But my sense is the majority of Granite Staters do not prefer this approach. Let’s look at the bill and see how it would work out. I see a bill that would empower the liquor commission to write the rules and regulate cannabis, however they decide to do it. There is very little legislative guidance in HB1598 telling what to prioritize when writing rules. There’s no oversight board like there is in just about every other state that is looking over their shoulder and asking why are we doing it this way? It would be setting them up to be the sole retailer and the sole regulator. They would be running the stores, and they would be regulating the businesses that supply them. Our current liquor model was successful because they can buy from an international liquor market. They can find the best products and prices, order in bulk, and put it on the shelves, and people who consume alcohol are very happy with the selection and prices.”
It’s a bottle. The product doesn’t go bad. It can sit there.
To assume that will happen for cannabis because it works for liquor is frankly naive. The only products they’ll be able to sell are products produced in New Hampshire, which begs the question of what businesses will want to participate in this type of market. I’m not a business expert. I was an English teacher and a college instructor for seven years, and then I became an advocate for cannabis policy reform. I’ve done that for fifteen years. I joined the team at Prime last summer, and I’ve been looking at this from the perspective of the NH therapeutic cannabis program for the last nine months. I’ve spent time at all the facilities. I’ve tried to learn about every aspect of how we operate and how we interact with our regulators. To look at this potential market is kind of like walking into a cave without a torch. You don’t know what’s ahead because it’s entirely up to the liquor commission, and it might work out if they do a great job and if they have good priorities and proactively try to embrace small businesses and try to partner with people. But there is so much that can go wrong. There’s no guarantee. They would be the only buyers for the products you’d be producing. That is an incredibly scary situation, if you’re looking at potentially investing a lot of money and starting up a cannabis business and the only person who can buy your product is the liquor commission. What if they don’t want to buy it? What if they want to offer you prices that aren’t competitive? There’s no market for your product.”
You grow all this cannabis that you hope the state will buy at a fair price, and you can get told, we don’t want it.
“I’m not sure how many people will be interested in applying for these licenses under those circumstances. I fear the only entities interested would be some of the largest businesses. If you are a large, publicly-traded company, you can probably afford to take the risk.”
“I don’t want to call anybody out by name, but there are a number of large publicly traded companies in lots of other states and have an existing business model. If they were to set up shop in New Hampshire and the thing doesn’t work out, they would lose their investment and be okay. If you’re a small business and put your life savings investing in this, and it doesn’t work out either because a lawsuit keeps them from establishing the program or secondarily federal legalization could happen any time opening up interstate commerce. Why would the liquor commission necessarily buy New Hampshire cannabis if they can buy California cannabis that’s cheaper? People are used to the economic development that comes along with the jobs. Business opportunities are one way this could work out. If five years from now, New Hampshire has state-run stores selling cannabis selling everywhere in the country but not so much from New Hampshire, we don’t get the jobs or the business development.”
“It’s a mystery to me why they are even exploring it. No one in the country is doing it this way. No one.”
After talking to eight states, a Republican chaired commission recommended against a state monopoly in favor of private retailers. Why was it rejected?
“That’s a good question to ask Representative Abbas.”
When did you start smoking pot?
“I tried it when I was nineteen, somewhere after my freshman year in college. I expected the effects would be much more dramatic than they were. After trying it and observing my friends consuming cannabis and drinking alcohol, I concluded very quickly cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and ought to be treated that way. That put me down a twenty-five-year path of trying to understand this issue and trying to educate the public. This many-decade propaganda campaign against cannabis was not based on much of anything. Not only does cannabis prohibition not work, not achieve its goal of eliminating or reducing use, but it exacerbates all of the harms it is supposed to prevent. Dragging people into the criminal justice system for cannabis use is entirely counter-productive and doesn’t help anybody who has a problem with a substance. It drives the problem underground and creates an extremely lucrative multi-billion-dollar market in cannabis where there is no consumer protection. You have no idea what you’re getting.”
“Imagine trying to drink responsibly in 1927 when you don’t know if the liquid in front of you is five percent, twenty-five percent, or eighty-five percent alcohol. You don’t know whether it’s distilled or brewed using a legitimate process or industrial alcohol that had to be chemically denatured for you to consume or if it was wood alcohol being passed off or bathtub gin. There were tremendous terrible consequences associated with alcohol prohibition that are very well documented. So many of those had corollaries in cannabis prohibition. Part of the reason that I’ve become such an advocate for sensible regulation I see it as an opportunity to create a culture of responsible use around adult-use cannabis. It starts with accurate labeling and knowing the dosage of the product you’re consuming.”
Where are you from?
“I’m originally from West Virginia and been here since 2006. I taught at community college for two-and-a-half years before I moved here. I was in Eastern Kentucky when the whole oxycontin and the whole opioid crisis started to mushroom. That was a big part of what got me going on all this. I’d gone from being at West Virginia University where partying meant drinking and smoking cannabis for the most part. Suddenly, I was in a culture where partying meant snorting pills to an awful lot of people. Our students were passing out in the middle of class. Nobody fully understood why. I remember that was when the headlines started calling it hillbilly heroin. But younger students in Kentucky at that time didn’t seem interested in cannabis at all.”
Kids were passing out in class, and this is how you go on this path.
“It was happening quite a lot. I had read every book and article I could find on drug and marijuana policy, and they all were telling me the war on cannabis is a failure that will never work.”
“Seeing it in practice and seeing such a disconnect between drug policies and reality, what was the point of the war on drugs? It’s an absolute dismal failure.”
Home cultivation is still a felony in New Hampshire.
“Yes, for patients in the live free or die state. This is still a tremendous sticking point with HB1598. It would remain a felony for anybody. The state is going to make a bunch of money selling a plant theoretically but keep it a felony for those who choose to grow their own. That’s just really hard to understand.”
You were the New England political director and legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project for nearly ten years and then to director of public and government relations at the Prime Alternative Treatment Center.
“Yes. I had kept touch with all the ATCs and tried to improve the therapeutic cannabis law and communicated with them for that reason. I got to know folks at Prime and just love the job they were doing.”
Tell us about Prime ATC?
“Prime, like all the New Hampshire ATCs, is a non-profit. It is independently managed. We have a board of directors, a president, CEO, and COO they are both people who have been with the organization who have worked their way up through the staff chart to hold those positions. Everybody is in it for the right reasons. Committed to helping patients. Committed to pioneering cannabis in New Hampshire in a responsible way. When I saw the excellent work they were doing, I stepped up to be their lobbyist and PR guy.”
If you have a medical cannabis card, you have to register with a dispensary and only go to that dispensary.
“That was the case until September last year. Now we can serve any patient who is registered in New Hampshire. We will soon be allowed to serve any patient who has a card from any state. That also passed last year but has not been implemented yet. We hope that will happen soon. We get a lot of inquiries from patients who are visiting from other states and are disappointed they do not have a legal source of cannabis here.”
What stops somebody if they have a card to just go to Massachusetts or Maine? Does that eat into your business?
“They can do that. The prices are the biggest reason in Massachusetts. Plus, the lack of variety of products. They don’t have some of the more therapeutically focused products. The prices are high because there is a twenty-percent tax. The prices in Maine are much lower. Basically, any caregiver can operate a storefront business in Maine, and they aren’t required to do the independent lab testing we are required to do. It’s voluntary in Maine. So, you don’t really know what you’re getting. A lot of patients should be concerned about potential contaminants like mold, pesticides, and heavy metals. Our products are rigorously tested.”
Are you vertically integrated?
“We have to be. The ATCs are allowed to sell to each other wholesale. We grow everything in Peterborough at our production facility and we sell it to our dispensaries in Merrimack and Chichester and we wholesale.”
Are you making any money?
“We incurred a large amount of debt building the production facility and the dispensary. There is a lot of costs involved and the regulations in New Hampshire are very strict, so we had to comply with a lot of complex regulations. We’ve made a lot of progress in retiring the debt that has incurred. We’ve been open five and a half years. The first few years were difficult and limited. It has expanded in recent years with more than 12,000 patients registered in the state.”
Would ATCs survive if the liquor store model goes through?
“The ATCs could create for-profit entities that then enter this adult-use market, spin-off, and become suppliers. It’s possible the ATCs could survive by doing that. It’s fraught with risk. It makes us nervous. I don’t understand how the therapeutic cannabis program can survive if this does work out as intended. If it does work out as its proponents imagine. Patients are going to be incentivized to buy from the state-run stores and not from the heavily regulated non-profit ATCs. We do more than sell cannabis. We provide education and support services to everybody who walks through the door unless they decline it.”
This goes back to the state liquor store model.
“Consumers have great options in Maine. There will be great options in craft cannabis in Vermont by the end of this year. Massachusetts has stores all along the border. Prices are coming down. More cultivators are coming online. Patients and consumers are going to have thousands of producers in other states to choose from and if the New Hampshire model is a small number of corporate cannabis operators selling in a tiny number of state stores, which is not going to be a revenue-generating system.”
“We’re on a sustainable path and growing as it currently stands but we have no idea what the future holds. We’re trying to get out of debt and into a position where we are able to take the next steps, whatever they might be.”
Beverly Stoddart is a writer, author, and speaker. After 42 years of working at newspapers, she retired to write books and a blog. She is on the Board of Trustees of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project and is a member of the Winning Speakers Toastmasters group in Windham and the Ohio Writers’ Association. Her latest book is Stories from the Rolodex, mini-memoirs of journalists from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. A prized accomplishment was winning Carl Kassel’s voice for her voice mail when she won the National Public Radio game, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! She has been married for 45 years to her husband, Michael, and has one son and two rescue dogs